11 September 2003


Stephen Marks writes:

I never thought that the politics of the Socialist Workers' Party and the Communist Party of Britain deterred significant numbers from participating in the antiwar movement before the start of the war. As long as they kept their own politics out of it and were sufficiently "unprincipled" to be open to all opponents of the war - even to the point of having LibDems on the platform - most antiwar opinion couldn't give a monkey's who was putting in the work to get the demos up and running.

But I do think the situation is changing - not because of any changes by the SWP and CPB but because life itself is throwing up new challenges in Iraq, to which the hard left answers are clearly at odds with the majority opinion of those who opposed the war.

The US administration - or at least the neo-con element - was drooling at the mouth at the prospect of reforging Iraq in the USA's image. A modern, pro-Western and democratic Iraq, refashioned by a continuing and benevolent US mandatory regime, would have a domino effect on its neighbours and beyond. It would drain the swamp of Arab and Muslim backwardness, leading to a triumph of free-market values throughout the region, to the benefit of Israel, Bechtel, Iraqi oil priced in dollars not euros, and continued US strategic domination of the region and its resources.

But life proved more complex. Iraqi opinion, while welcoming the fall of Saddam, was clearly suspicious of US motives and insisted on the most rapid possible American departure. Continuing attacks and the need to restore order and infrastructure put a premium on maximising the legitimacy of any interim authority. And the whole messy business looked like lasting much longer, and costing much more in cash and blood, than was likely to prove acceptable to the US public - or to their elected representatives with an election year approaching.

Iraqi political parties, from Shi'ites to Communists, initially agreed on demanding a political conference of all shades of Iraqi opinion, to be convened by the UN, not the US occupation forces, and which would appoint and install a provisional government. This government would decide which foreign troops should be in Iraq and for how long, who was to get what contracts for reconstruction, what should be the future of Iraq's oil industry and other key issues.

The US was compelled as a result to give the Governing Council some real powers, which was not its original intention. And as a result, most major political forces joined it. To my knowledge the only major political forces outside it are the Worker-Communist Party (as opposed to the historic Iraqi CP, which now says it models itself on Swedish Social Democracy) and the more hardline of the Shi'ites.

Interestingly British far-left publications which have given favourable coverage to the WCPI for its criticism of the Governing Council as a US stooge, nonetheless also criticise it for having illusions in the UN, to which apparently it still looks to sponsor a genuinely independent interim government.

None of us can tell what the Iraqi people "really think". But political parties that probably represent between them the great majority of Iraqis seem to think that now the allied occupation is in place, the best way forward is to exploit the US need for credibility in the transitional authority by taking part in the process and pushing for the greatest and speediest possible transfer of powers to Iraqis - as well as the speediest possible restoration of the infrastructure on which the Iraqi people depend for the restoration of any sort of normal life.

(By contrast the Saddamite and fundamentalist "resistance", by sabotaging the restoration of the necessities of daily life, make clear that its politics sees no independent role for the mass of ordinary Iraqis except perhaps as a desperate and maddened mob.)

The same pressures have also forced Bush into an embarassing U-turn at the UN. Previously denounced as dead, the Administration is now begging it on bended knee to accept an enhanced role. With obvious and justified Schadenfreude the French, Germans and Russians have kept Bush twisting in the wind for a reply. As the saying goes, God does not pay his debts in money. And there is the genuine problem of expecting others to provide troops while the US continues its absolute refusal to see US troops anwhere under other than US command.

All this can only reinforce the pressure of the Iraqis for a more rapid "Iraqisation", and under UN not US auspices. The reason of course is not any illusions about the UN. Iraqis who have suffered under its sanctions need no lectures on that score. The UN is not some White Knight of international probity, untainted by the vulgar self-interest of great power special interests. It is nothing more or less than a consensus among the powers that be constructed on the basis of horse-trading and arm-twisting.

As such however it is a preferable alternative - and the only one on offer - to the untrammeled national egoism and self-interest of the sole superpower.

What is the attitude of the left to this? I believe the majority of those who demonstrated would agree with the view taken by the bulk of Iraqi opinion. But judging from what I can see of its comments, the far left seems to have gone on to automatic pilot.

As Iraq is occupied by US imperialism, all those who work with the occupation authorities are collaborationist imperialist stooges. All the saboteurs are part of the "resistance" to whom we owe a duty of unconditional - but of course comrades, not uncritical - support. And according to Socialist Worker, the UN offices were a "legitimate target" - since after all the UN by working with and recognising the fact of the occupation, is an accomplice in it and part of the repressive mechanism of imperialist control etc etc.

There is a real problem with the Stop the War Coalition slogan "end the occupation". Reducing everything to "troops out now" is not going to mobilise the bulk of those who opposed the decision to go to war. And it will surely open up political divisions within what was the anti-war camp which ought to be debated. I dont know where that debate can take place. But given the SWP's atttitude to political argument, it certainly wont be within the StWC.

4 September 2003


I am grateful to Mike Marqusee for forwarding the following piece by two former members of the Socialist Workers’ Party in Birmingham. It appears here cut and edited.

Sue Blackwell and Rumy Hasan

We were long long-standing members of the Socialist Workers’ Party before we resigned in April 2002 (Sue Blackwell for 19 years; Rumy Hasan for 16) and now, some 16 months later, we wish to explain why we left an organisation that had played such a central role in our lives.

Let us first acknowledge our debt to the SWP: we do not intend to rewrite our histories. Both of us devoted enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources to the organisation. We remain very close to the central tenets that the SWP, in theory at least, espouses. We acknowledge that people join the SWP for the highest of motives, to change the world for the better. The party has undoubtedly achieved much that is laudable. Ours is not the sectarian diatribe of embittered ex-members. It is intended as a serious attempt to critique the organisation's failings.

We would like to imagine that most experienced, self-reflecting SWP members would agree that the SWP has a democratic deficit. But a deficit implies an excess of negatives over positives. The trouble is that in terms of party democracy, there is very little on the positive side: there is not just a democratic deficit but an almost complete absence of democracy. Compounding this is also the absence of democracy's twin, accountability . . .

Democratic debate, discussion, and decision-making necessitate voting - yet party members within the organisation rarely vote. It is a ferociously hierarchical, top-down organisation: the “line” is set by the central committee and enforced on the ground by full-time organisers . . .
For most members, their contact with the party's structures is dominated by the relationship with the organiser. Yet the organiser is not elected by the members but is imposed by the centre . . . Knowing that they are untouchable by grassroots members, organisers tend to be characterised by astonishing insensitivity and arrogance . . . Because they are appointed by, and report to, the central committee, their loyalty is cast iron. Similarly, because the central committee appoints and directs organisers, it backs them to the hilt . . .

Ostensibly, the central committee is elected at the annual conference by delegates sent by the branches (or districts, or whatever format is in existence at the time): usually one delegate for every 10 members. But what invariably happens is that the central committee recommends a “slate” of candidates, and asks whether there are any other slates. We have never known of an alternative slate being put forward. In effect the central committee elects itself . . .

This method strongly acts against the democratic spirit and stamps out critical thinking. Members tend to become submissive, passive, and hidebound - being spoon-fed the politics without thinking or evaluating counterarguments. What happened to Marx's dictum “doubt everything'? It certainly does not get applied to the party line. And when the central committee railroads through a line with undemocratic practices such as packing meetings, most members meekly accept the argument - popular with Stalinists in the past - that “it had to be done”: a mantra that excuses the most nefarious of practices . . .

When it comes to the editorship of the party's publications, democracy is completely out of the question. The argument seems to be that editors should be drawn from the central committee and their authority stems from conference. In reality, the jobs are farmed out between central committee members or those very close to them . . .

The party continuously advocates the principle "never lie to the class". But . . . [it never tells] the truth to members regarding membership figures. It has been years since these have been revealed. The reason, we believe, is that the party membership has declined enormously since the mid-1990s - we estimate its size to be about a third to a half of what it was then . . . A democratic, accountable, organisation would regularly reveal the true membership figures to its members as of right, and if they have fallen, provide an explanation. It would also enable ordinary members to demand accountability and, if need be, allow for the removal of central committee members deemed responsible. But alas, none of this happens . . .

The undemocratic culture of the party moulds the political character of members. Some maintain their independence of thought and integrity. But there is no doubt that on the left, the reputation of party members has fallen. There is the constant refrain that in non-party gatherings, others are mystified at the mechanical behaviour of SWP members, always voting the same way, talking, and behaving like automatons . . . Once the epithet "party hack" sticks, it is very rarely removed . . .

The truly bright sparks in recent years on the international horizon for left politics has been the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements. What is crystal clear from these is that millions of people wish to see an alternative to the sham democracy (or no democracy) of the present world. They are certainly not going to tolerate undemocratic and authoritarian practices of left organisations - and this perhaps helps explain why they have not joined those such as the SWP in any significant numbers. The lesson is abundantly clear: without a relentless commitment to genuine democracy, accountability, and civilised debate, the project of winning a better world will remain grounded. The SWP shows no signs of understanding this.

2 September 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 5 2003

I’m used to wishful thinking in Tribune, but last week's piece by the convenor and chair of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey German and Andrew Murray -- respectively apparatchiks of the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party of Britain -- really was in a class of its own.

Their message was that all is for the best in the organisation that has been the public face of British opposition to the US-British war to oust Saddam Hussein.

"Although the war has been officially 'over' for four months," they intoned, "the anti-war movement is as busy as ever." Hundreds of people have turned up to meetings and conferences "marked . . . by a vibrant and democratic spirit. The Government's troubles over the death of Dr David Kelly have vindicated the movement. The unions are on board. Dozens of exciting activities are planned in the next few weeks.

And who doubts this? Only “former leftists such as David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens -- who believe that the whole movement is the result of a sinister collusion between Islamic fundamentalism and the Socialist Workers' Party". But they are "utterly ignorant of the Muslim community". And the SWP "is only a problem if you come from that part of the left which has spent the past 20 years stampeding ever-rightwards". "A lesson of this past historic and exciting year," they conclude, "is that such squabbles are of minor importance."

Well, if you believe that, you'll believe that the British revolution is imminent or that Stalin's slave-labour camps were a fiction of imperialist propaganda. The truth is that the Stop the War Coalition has been a colossal failure -- and that the politics of its leading actors bears a substantial part of the blame.

Here, it is necessary to go back a bit. Before 9/11, Iraq was not a major issue in Britain. The Leninist micro-parties and other leftists had railed for years about the iniquities of the UN sanctions regime against Iraq. But lifting it would have left no way of constraining Saddam. So most of the left agreed with the government that sanctions were preferable (if not quite as they were) to removing the pressure or escalating to all-out military action.

What changed after 9/11 -- when it became clear that the US was preparing to invade Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and overthrow the Taliban -- was that Britain’s Leninists found a cause they shared not only with part of the non-Leninist left but also with a substantial section of Muslim opinion. Led by the SWP and the CPB, they set up a committee they dominated, the Stop the War Coalition, to campaign against US imperialist aggression.

On Afghanistan, its efforts were ineffectual – two lacklustre London demos, one of 20,000 and one of 50,000 -- but that wasn't surprising. Although there were doomsayers across the political spectrum who warned (incorrectly) that the Afghan war would be a disaster, few apart from the died-in-the-wool left, the pacifists and the Islamists questioned the legitimacy of the enterprise.

But once the Bush Administration's attentions turned to Iraq, British public opinion shifted -- and for good reason. There was little evidence that Saddam had any responsibility for 9/11 or would turn belligerent again. And invading Iraq appeared extraordinarily risky, not least because of the arsenal everyone assumed he possessed. From spring 2002, it was clear that there was a potential "coalition of the unwilling" opposed to war against Iraq (unless diplomacy had been exhausted and war had UN backing) including most of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and even some Tories.

This was an extraordinary opportunity for an effective mobilisation against war. But seizing it required an anti-war movement that reflected mainstream anti-war opinion. It had to be explicit that Saddam was a legitimate target for international action short of war. And it could not be, or seen to be, a front for self-styled revolutionaries or radical Islamists on the make.

The Stop the War Coalition failed on almost every count. It organised several big demonstrations -- including one in February that was massive. But that was all. Politically, it never left the leftist ghetto. The SWP conspired shamelessly to retain organisational control. The coalition was cool towards anyone further Right than Labour's hard left (though it tolerated anti-Semitic Islamists). It not only refused to accept that Saddam was a problem but welcomed his supporters. Once the fighting started, the coalition came close (and the SWP even closer) to endorsing the heroic Ba’athist socialist resistance. Unsurprisingly, the numbers on the demos melted away.

Of course, even the most competent and inclusive campaign might not have stopped the British government going to war. But the Stop the War Coalition could not have done much worse if its leaders had been in the pay of the CIA.